How to Write About Anything: 5 Steps for Researching a New Topic

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You’ve just landed a job as a content writer . . . for an industry you have absolutely zero background in.

You’re a beginner, and this is a great job, your best so far: $100 for 800 words. You’ve gotta make it. There is no way you’re about to mess this up.

What now?

You’re going to write those articles, and you’re going to write them well. No one, especially your new client, will ever guess you’re new to the field.

That’s the right attitude, and you’re halfway there. Now the question is how to do it.

Ready? Here are five steps to effectively research your subject, so you’ll be able to write authoritative, accurate content.

1. Define and refine your topic

Let’s say you’re writing for a marketing manager. You’re new to freelancing, and have no idea what marketing even is. All you know is that when you need vegetables, you can go to the supermarket or the farmer’s market.

Your first step is to define what kind of marketing your client wants you to write about. Does he want to market a service or a product? Online or offline? Is what you’re writing going to be printed, made into a wall poster, or published on a website?

Once you’ve figured out what you are marketing, along with where, how, and to whom, you can move on. Remember, you’re not out to become an expert. If you gobble up too much at once, it’ll hurt your writing. All you need is a basic understanding of the subject at hand.

Take a minute to write down what your specific topic is, just as if you were writing an academic thesis statement.

2. Determine what resources you need

Once upon a time, when we wanted to look something up, we went to the library and opened an encyclopedia. Those were the days.

Today, it’s not so simple. If you’re looking to write for a travel agency, you’re going to read popular websites, search for cheap deals, and see what interests travelers right now.

On the other hand, if you’re writing about whether breastfeeding has health benefits, you’re going to want to read government sites, medical reports, and organized, reliable research.

You also need to think about whether written information is enough. Maybe you’re going to need to dig up a video or sound recording, conduct an interview or observe someone.

3. Start your research

If you’ve decided that your primary information source is the Internet, start Googling. If you’re looking for people who have been to the Bahamas, look on Facebook. If you need to find out whether it’s worth it to be a dentist, make a list of dentists in your area and ask for interviews.

How long you spend on this step depends on a few things. First, consider how complicated the subject is, and how much material you will need to cover. Also take into consideration how fast you read, how quickly you learn new concepts, and whether you need to take someone else’s schedule into consideration.

Tackle at least one of your chosen sources per day if you have the time to plot out your research.

4. Get your sources to work for you

It doesn’t take research to learn how to research, but it does take preparation.

If you’re observing someone, you’ll need to think about who and what you’re observing. Write down your goals. Think about recording the observation session so you can review it later, and be proactive beforehand to obtain permission to record.

If you’re conducting interviews, make a list of questions to ask and topics that you want to cover. You won’t always be able to ask all the questions (sometimes the conversation will go off on a tangent or you’ll run out of time), but if you have a list of topics, you’ll remember the most important items.

For those Googling, I recommend reading through the first five-to-10 pages of results, the last five-to-10 pages of results, and a few random pages in the middle. Otherwise, you’re liable to miss important information.

Whenever possible, take a few moments to research the viewpoint opposite to your own. Knowing both sides of the issue will give you a better understanding overall — and it will show in your writing.

5. Write down what you’ve learned

Make a list of the most important things you’ve learned. This can be done on paper, in a Word document, or even just by copy-and-pasting the most important selections into an email to yourself. Make sure that you keep track of your sources, so that you don’t get stuck later on.

Remember your original document with your topic and list of sources? Open it. See if you’ve done what you wanted to do. You may want to write what you’ve learned in this same document, to keep it all together.

Do you have tips on how to quickly learn about a new field? Share them in the comments!

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Chana Roberts is a freelance writer and blogger with extensive experience in the field. As both a mother and writer, Chana is motivated and passionate; she lives in the beautiful land of Israel.... .

Chana Writes | @chanawrites

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  1. Chana,

    Great tips. Often times, many new freelance writers don’t know where to start with research. Depending on the topic and requirements can really help you decide if blog posts or case studies is the way to go.

    For me, most of my clients are blog writing clients, so most of my research is online. You have to remember to research from credible sources and authoritative sources.

    • Definitely, Elna.

      I think most research today is online; encyclopedias are slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past (:'(), and each field has its own reliable websites and research.

  2. Careful choice of sources is incredibly important! In the internet age, you can find someone saying almost everything that could be said; that doesn’t mean it’s true. When you pair this wide availability of dubious “information” with content written by people whose expertise is solely in writing rather in the content itself, too often a vicious cycle develops, as the next poorly researched article is written based on the poorly researched articles that went before it.

    When one is building a freelance career, it can be tempting to take any work that comes your way. There is something to be said, however, for building a niche based on your areas of interest and knowledge. It takes courage to admit, “This is something I don’t know enough about to choose credible sources for my research,” especially when it’s the first gig that’s come along in weeks (or longer).

    If you can’t bring yourself to turn down the work, at least have a conversation with the client, perhaps asking, “What types of sources would be consistent with your intended approach to this topic?” (Hey, if it’s a crackpot blog, the client probably WANTS you to use crackpot sources! Just realize that by the time you get a few crackpot articles in your portfolio, you may have unintentionally carved that as your permanent niche.)

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Coaching

    • Trish, you’re totally right. It’s really easy to find information today, and sorting the good from the bad, the reliable from the propaganda, can be really tough.

      I agree with you; part of finding your niche is knowing what you know how to properly research and what you don’t.

      Crackpot is as crackpot does, you think? I’m not sure I’d take a client like that, though – they may very well be more trouble than they’re worth.

  3. I like that you include interviews in your research as I think that adds depth and credibility especially when writing about difficult or contentious topics. But as a freelancer remember they take more time and so budget in your proposal for that.

    I write a lot of blog posts for clients as a ghostwriter- one tip is to start especially if it’s a new topic by reading more general sites first. That helps to get a handle on a subject, then systematically dig for deeper more authoritative content sources as you mention.

    And also second that read opposing arguments is really important to writing a credible piece.

    • Viv, you’re absolutely right about the interviews. Thanks for adding that point.

      Yes, reading general sides *does* help you to get a feel for the subject. On the other hand, it takes more time, no?

      What’s kind of sad is that it’s rare to see articles written by people who actually understand the other side of the argument. That’s probably one of the reasons why knowing the other side of the coin gives you automatic credibility.

      • yep, on taking time with more general info, but if it’s a complex topic, it’s saves time as it’s basically an introduction. someone on here said the children’s book idea-which is a great idea!

        • That was me! Yes! I have never gone wrong using the children’s book technique. I am a novelist so I usually have more time to research subjects. Whoever said encyclopedias are gone is not really right. The library is still an author’s best asset and reliable source of information. The libraries I visit have access to weird periodicals and study materials that aren’t even available online. My local library also has subscriptions to magazines that the long-gone newsstands used to carry…

        • Yep, children’s books serve as an easy-to-understand explanation of any given subject. Ditto for kids’ encyclopedias.

          • Hello I’ve just been reading over your article and through the comments. I’m a young writer, still new to the field and I just wanted to comment on the encyclopedia situation. My father bought me the 1950 – 1993 colliers encyclopedia collection when I was younger. It has been my main source of information through out school and has inspired me to become a writer.

  4. Some of these suggestions are excellent, such as Googling beyond the first five pages of a topic but the best advice I ever got was from mystery author Harley Jane Kozak who advised authors to borrow a children’s book on the topic in question from the library. Brilliant! As she explained it, non-fiction children’s books are distilled to the most important aspects of a subject, plus the information is always correct – unlike the Internet which is frequently filled with garbage.
    I would also advise other authors to interview experts on a subject. I contacted a slew of forensic accountants for a series of mystery novels. Three said yes. Their information was invaluable. I was thrilled that they were willing to talk to me and I learned that all three admitted to being frustrated writers 🙂
    I have also come to realize that most people who do a job love it when someone shows interest in it and wants to learn about it.

    • Reading a children’s book really is a brilliant idea.

      I thought about including interviews in the list, but since it can be difficult to find experts, I skipped it. You’re right, though, that experts are an invaluable resource, if you can find someone willing to talk to you.

      • Hi Chana,
        I have never had trouble finding “experts” to talk to. Since I research books I have more time than say a copywriter on an assignment. As a copywriter I found 90% of what I came across online to be outdated and inaccurate. Having said that, I learned Googling specific job titles I came across people…researched them, found them in interesting online discussion groups and called them. I’ve talked to U.S. Marshals, detectives, a bee keeper…all within hours of finding them online. For me it’s the thrill of the hunt and it’s worth the extra time to interview to get an authentic voice in my work 🙂

  5. Kimberlee Ingram says:

    Great advice! Thanks for sharing Chana. This is a great outline to follow. One thing I always include is a time line for getting the research done. I am a research junkie and can get caught up in this portion. There is definitely such thing as “too much” research. I always write up a mini-strategic plan to follow so that I don’t extend too much energy in one section. I really liked your point on what to read for google searches. I have to admit, I never thought to go over the last 5-10 pages of search results before. Great idea!
    Thanks again,

    • Honestly? The last 5-10 pages of Google was my husband’s idea. I was trying to find information on whether an online money-making project was safe or not (that’s another post), and he insisted on searching the last ten pages. I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

      I definitely get you on the too much research. I find that I can read for hours and then suddenly say, “Hey, wait, I’m supposed to be writing about this! Oops!” Maybe setting a timer would be a good idea. You think?

  6. Hey Chana,
    I agree with all points that you have mentioned in this post. By following these points, anyone can write about anything.
    Thanks for the tips and for your efforts.
    – Alexa

  7. I try to find as many “sources” of information as possible so I don’t end up copying any one article, even by mistake.

  8. Great! I am going to check out the article its very informative thanks to share this.

  9. OOh – I love this article, especially because I ENJOY tackling new subjects! The high of learning something new – even if it’s just a bird’s eye view – is incomparable!

    My problem is: research paralysis

    So I am working with my client – who gently urged me to stop over-researching – to research smarter! LOL I can always read more on my time 😉

    Thank you

    • I like reading about new subjects. But sometimes I get subject paralysis; hardly ever research paralysis. Remember how math (or science, or grammar) was always scary in school?

      Yep, you can always research more on the bus (subway, train) home.

  10. Some great advice here, especially about researching both sides of an issue if you’re writing a persuasive article or blog post. Research is important for any project.

    Regarding your first point: as a healthcare marketing manager, I would never hire a copywriter who has “no idea what marketing even is,” no matter how inexpensive their rate is. Most marketing managers don’t have time to train someone or teach them Marketing 101. I hire writers who already know something about my industry and are ready to hit the ground running. If you don’t know anything about marketing (or the difference between sales and marketing), then look for another type of writing assignment.

  11. Great post Chana,
    This is what most new writers usually find very difficult. Writing on a topic you’re not familiar on can really be a pain in the ass.

    However, if you understand how best to carry out research, it will become much more easier for you.

    Thanks for sharing.


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